PRIVATE JOKES, PUBLIC PLACES by Oren Safdie, directed by Alisa Palmer, with Victor Ertmanis, David Jansen, M.J. Kang and Dan Lett. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Runs to October 24, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $27-$33, Sunday pwyc-$15. 416-531-1827. Rating: NN Rating: NN
The Tarragon season opener, Private Jokes, Public Places , will give you some laughs and the occasional theatrical moment, but it's a sketch inflated into a play and ultimately a weakly built structure.
We're the audience at a presentation by architectural students, watching the keen Margaret ( M. J. Kang ) explain the design of her public swimming pool, with the assistance of her teacher, William ( David Jansen ), to established bigwig architects Colin ( Victor Ertmanis ) and Erhardt ( Dan Lett ).
The two senior statesmen are more concerned with one-upmanship than with assessing Margaret's project, metaphorically grabbing the microphone to talk about their own interests and to puff themselves up.
Initially nervous, Margaret gains strength and anger as she's talked down to and criticized, while William, who's connected with his student in several ways, begins but doesn't end as peacemaker. At times he acts as a therapy facilitator between the factions.
Oren Safdie 's play is a heady one, with some clever arguments on both sides, but it's only partway through that the drama of the piece begins to engage us. He's put in a touch of David Mamet's sexism-themed Oleanna, and worked racism and sociopolitical conflict into the interaction.
Not surprisingly, given the script's problems, Alisa Palmer 's direction doesn't sustain the dramatic tension. There's a moving final speech and then the work goes, unnecessarily, for the sensational.
Ertmanis is properly stuffy but distanced; Lett, an actor we don't see onstage often enough, hits a frequent note of ebullience and doesn't show us any other side of Erhardt. Kang's Margaret has some emotional moments, but her speeches can be hard to understand.
It's Jansen who draws the production's most subtle portrait, that of a naive mentor who finally decides where his loyalties lie.